After his Maryland squad suffered a 74-65 loss at Michigan State on Saturday, Mark Turgeon said something that summed up both the evening and the season.
"I thought Michigan State was terrific tonight," he said of a Spartans team that had lost three games in a row entering the matchup.
That's the only tangible measurement that's worth counting this season, it seems. Through Jan. 22, The Associated Press poll's top five teams had suffered 19 losses, a record for that stretch. Unranked teams orchestrated 12 of those defeats. It's obvious that a 38-1 Kentucky or 2005 North Carolina or 2006-07 Florida or pick-a-great-team-of-the-past-20-years does not exist at this juncture of the 2015-16 season.
And that leads to an uncomfortable question: Is this parity or just a bunch of chaotic basketball among a collection of average teams?
"I don't know if we were ever [a No. 1] team. I've said that," Tom Izzo told ESPN.com. "Although, I can think of some other ones that weren't either. ... I think [North Carolina] right now might be the cream of the crop. Oklahoma's good. We played them last year. Same team. I really like them. Buddy Hield is great but I don't think they're destroying like North Carolina [in 2008-09] was. Iowa is really good. I don't think anybody is gonna say there aren't 15 teams that could win it this year. "
Exciting action continues to balance the narrative that the game lacks great teams this season. Perhaps it's correct. But great nights seem abundant. Kansas-Oklahoma in triple overtime. Arizona-USC in quadruple overtime. North Carolina and Texas. Michigan State and Wisconsin.
That's just the truth and now, the expectation. So we'll find a spot on the couch on Monday night when the Big 12 unveils its latest 30 for 30-like affair as Kansas travels to Iowa State in a critical Big Monday matchup (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET). And we'll anticipate a great game.
The numbers prove that the new rules have emitted more possessions and points. The tweak aimed to make college basketball more fan-friendly. The men's basketball's rules committee considered the fans who'd turned off their televisions and refused to attend games. They're the key players, the men and women who create the demand for the product. Because that's what college basketball is right now.
In 2007-08, 33,396,316 fans attended college basketball games at the Division I, II and III levels combined, an all-time record. The 2014-15 mark of 32,510,647 fell nearly a million shy of that number. The 27,422,615 fans who attended Division I games last season was a slight decrease from the previous season.
It's not possible to separate the action from the public's response to it.
It's difficult to measure the overall quality of the game when Kansas, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Villanova and the other elite programs all fluctuated in the first three months of the season.
"There's less of a difference between the top 25 and next 25 in a given week," Texas coach Shaka Smart said. "In addition, teams in top conferences are beating up on each other more because players know that everyone is beatable. There seems to be less of a fear this year of the highest ranked teams."
So back to this question on great teams and the quality of college basketball this season.
Any thoughts on this, Chris Mack?
"People are basing this perceived chaos on two programs: Kentucky and Duke," the Xavier coach said via text. "They're usually top five every week of the season. Not so far this year. But, you're telling me this year's Oklahoma, Kansas, UNC couldn't make the Final Four a year ago? I'm not buying the no-great-teams narrative. Garbage!"
OK. Steve Prohm?
"Honestly, I think it's like this every year," the Iowa State coach said. "There's been tremendous parity across the board for a while now. We just don't have the 'Kentucky team' of last year that was so dominating. I think the quality is really good and the games have been tremendous."
It's hard to argue with Prohm and Mack. The edge-of-your-seat action of 2015-16 has been undeniable.
But parity is an interesting word. In the most fruitful seasons, it details the competitive value of the game's best teams. The balance stems from the high level of talent sprinkled throughout the landscape. In 1990, an LSU squad led by Shaquille O'Neal, Mahmoud-Abdul Rauf and Stanley Roberts beat Larry Johnson's UNLV national title team but still failed to reach the second weekend of that year's NCAA tournament. That's one brand of parity. In a season like this one, when a raw athlete such as Skal Labissiere could earn a top-10 slot in this summer's NBA draft, it's possible that the word is a cover for the diminished talent pool.
The best seasons feature great players on great teams in great games.
Do we have those three elements in 2015-16?
Coaches charged with developing, assembling, recruiting and guiding talent do not take well to conversations about the quality of the product they govern. And it's understandable. A critique of the game could be construed as an indictment of their respective abilities. If something doesn't smell right, you blame the chef, right? So maybe it's best to seek the perspective of an outsider. Someone who follows and understands the game but lacks the ties to the current establishment. Someone who can speak without restraint.
On Sunday morning, former Chicago Bulls standout Bill Cartwright walked into O'Hare International Airport. He found a seat in his terminal and munched on a muffin.
Then the three-time NBA champion and former three-time West Coast Conference player of the year talked to an ESPN.com reporter, who was also waiting for a flight, about the current state of college basketball.
"I just don't think it's good basketball," said Cartwright, who was an assistant in the league for nearly 20 years. "But it makes good viewing for the fans. You're never gonna see more dunks or more 3-point shots than you are right now. Is that good? Is it great basketball? I don't think so. But it's very entertaining."
He added: "In my time ... it was more of a system of play where you actually passed the ball to the post and cut. Now they wave the post out to set a screen. Not too appealing for me. But it is what it is."
Cartwright described the dichotomy that exists. Exciting basketball versus good basketball? The two can coexist. Perhaps they do this year even without the talent level we've enjoyed in past years. And there's still time for some of the "really good" teams Izzo describes to evolve and mature by the time March Madness arrives.
No clear verdict. But all agree we're watching a captivating season of college basketball.
Cartwright, however, had a final question.
"Who is the best team in college basketball right now?"
That's complicated, Bill. All of this is complicated.
Big Ten stacked with coach of the year candidates
Fran McCaffery is the top candidate for Big Ten coach of the year, and he should top the list for national coach of the year too. Iowa swept Purdue and Michigan State with a combined margin of 49 points. That's ridiculous. But if Indiana keeps this rebirth alive, then it's not crazy to think that Tom Crean will win the award. What if Tom Izzo raises his Michigan State squad from its previous 3-4 hole (4-4 in the Big Ten after Saturday's win over Maryland) and captures a slice of the Big Ten title? Same goes for Mark Turgeon, who could score a significant win when Maryland meets Iowa on Thursday. John Beilein's Michigan team defeated Maryland and secured a 5-2 record in league play, even though Caris LeVert has missed the past six games. This is the most intriguing coach of the year event in the nation.
Wichita State is making really great music right now, but nobody knows
The beauty of the streaming generation is that we all have so much access to great music. The problem is that the landscape is crowded so good stuff gets lost.
Example: Carrie Underwood's "Storyteller" album. How'd y'all miss that?
This is how we feel about Wichita State. They're rolling but does anyone care?
We don't know what the NCAA's selection committee will do with Wichita State. But Gregg Marshall's team wants no part of this "it's MVC tourney or bust" concept. First, this is a squad that suffered through its worst times with its best player, Fred VanVleet, sidelined by a hamstring injury. Since the dynamic point guard returned after missing four games (1-3), the Shockers have won 12 of their past 13 games. Their lone loss in that stretch? An overtime road loss to a Seton Hall squad that defeated Providence on the road in league play. But that's not where the conversations end.
The Shockers recognize they're in a league that lacks the viable at-large threat to boost their resume. So they're following the George Foreman Formula. After Foreman lost to Muhammad Ali in 1974, he fought five men in one night. Beat all of them. Since he couldn't lure a contender to the ring, he just smashed whoever entered. Right now, MVC's undefeated kings boast a plus-20.5 average scoring margin. Their three-point win over Evansville is their only single-digit win in MVC play. This run and wins over Utah and UNLV might not help the Shockers earn an at-large berth. But the damage they've done in the Missouri Valley Conference thus far suggests that they still believe there's a chance.
A few Michigan State fans crossed the line on Saturday
Listen, college basketball thrives on intimacy. The fans hug the margins of the floor at most arenas, and they're a significant element of the excitement that surrounds the game. And some of that involves the things they say or the signs they make. We're on board with that. We encourage it. But sometimes, things go too far.
And the Michigan State fans -- a group that certainly doesn't represent the entire fan base or even Saturday's crowd -- who chanted "no means no" at Rasheed Sulaimon when the Maryland wing shot free throws went too far. Sulaiman was never formally charged and he denied the allegations. Sexual assault is a serious issue and should not serve as the subject of a playful chant. Let's shut that down now.
What did Kris Dunn do this week?
Wrong question. What didn't he do? On Sunday, he finished Providence's 82-76 overtime win at Villanova with 13 points, 14 assists, five rebounds and four steals (yes, six turnovers too).
Why isn't Maryland better on the boards?
You'd think a squad with 6-foot-9 Robert Carter, 6-9 Jake Layman, 6-11 Damonte Dodd and 6-11 Diamond Stone would register above 139th in offensive rebounding percentage. But the Terps continue to struggle in that critical area. They finished with a measly 24 percent offensive rebounding rate compared to Michigan State's 39 percent. It's a serious concern for a team that's suffered all three losses this season on the road.
"Rebounding has been an issue throughout the whole season, no matter who we've played," Melo Trimble told reporters on Saturday. "We always talk about rebounding. Coach Turgeon always said it would catch up to us, and it caught up to us today and it caught up to us against Michigan."
Beat the Buzzer
Big Monday for Steve Prohm?
Kansas travels to Ames, Iowa, on Monday for a prime-time matchup against Iowa State. A few things to consider: Kansas is 1-3 against the Cyclones in their past four meetings after owning an 18-1 tally in the previous 19 matchups. Plus, Iowa State is 5-3 against the Jayhawks when both teams are ranked.
UNLV loses at Nevada but how?
Todd Simon, the Runnin' Rebels interim coach, had won three in a row after taking the role following Dave Rice's firing. But UNLV fell back into old habits after suffering a loss at Nevada on Saturday despite securing a 47-38 lead midway through the half.
South Carolina's struggles
Defense alone has not been sufficient for the Gamecocks, who are ranked 25th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, but failed to register more than a point per possession in losses to Alabama and Tennessee in recent weeks.
That's somebody's child, Ben Moore!!!!!
What were you thinking, man? There was another man standing in front of you. A man, Ben. You didn't care. You just rose in the air in Sunday's matchup at Temple and you just kept rising until SMASH. You didn't have to do that. Call him and apologize, man. Or use Snapchat or something. Doesn't matter. Just say sorry.